The Golden Chain
We often recite the Golden Chain of Love in our services. The children love it & parents grew up with it. For years it was one of the few teachings that anyone heard in English. Many came to consider the Golden Chain as the essence of Shin Buddhism, indeed of all Buddhism. The Golden Chain is regarded a recitation for children. But because it was in English in a time when all of temple life was in Japanese, the Japanese-Americans, Japanese-Canadians & new non-Japanese attendees who were English speaking welcomed it. Their childhood memories of temple life created a fondness for the Golden Chain.
The original Golden Chain was written by a woman in Hawaii, a Caucasian woman no less. She was a gifted poet and devoted Shin Buddhist. Her name was Dorothy Poulton. She immigrated to Hawaii from England. Dorothy worked on a plantation with the Japanese population there. She set up Sunday Schools for the children. Her husband, Earnest Hunt was a sailor who encountered Buddhism in India. Upon his return to England he studied to be an Anglican priest, but on the eve of his ordination converted to Buddhism. He married Dorothy who then became Dorothy Hunt. The both immigrated together to Hawaii in 1915.
As a result of the Hunts’ activity on behalf of Buddhism and the Japanese community in Hawaii, the Bishop Yemyo Imamura ordained both of them. In 1924 Earnest was renamed Shinkaku. He became the head of the Hongwanji English Department. They were both active on behalf of Buddhist youth and young children, most of whom were English speaking. He composed the first English Seiten and she wrote many poems and hymns and gathas for Sunday services.
By 1928, they had attracted over 60 people of all origins who had become Buddhists through their guidance. They together formed an organization to spread Shin to English speaking people regardless of race or origins. Chinese monks and Theravada monks were so impressed that they helped the Hunts start the first International Buddhist Institute. Earnest received a Doctor of Dharma from the Burmese monks in Hawaii.
After the death of Bishop Imamura, the office of the Bishop was given to men with a different vision. One Bishop was a fierce Japanese nationalist. He was also narrowly doctrinaire. He found the Hunts’ open, universalistic approach to Buddhism in general and to Shin Buddhism in particular, most objectionable. In 1935 he fired the Hunts and disbanded the English Department. He also stopped any attempt to reach human beings beyond the Japanese community or beyond the Japanese language as well.
By this time, the Hunts had had Shin ordination and Theravada Doctorates in Dharma. They had written books, pamphlets, poems and gathas. They had helped many people find Shin Buddhism. Dorothy’s Golden Chain has become a classic reading. Now they were kicked out of their profession, no longer allowed to work for the Shin community they had so dearly served.
But they were not to be deterred in their commitment to Buddhism. Now exiles from their own faith, they sought refuge in the near-by Soto Zen temple. They were eventually ordained in the Soto Zen tradition by Zenkyo Komagata in 1953. Earnest Hunt is the only Caucasian priest to earn the sublime title of Osho of the Soto school. The Hunts continued propagation to others, regardless of race of origins. They wrote many books and guidelines for Buddhists. Hundreds of tourists came to the Soto temple just to hear him speak. He died at the age of 90 in Honolulu.
The story of Rev. Dorothy Hunt’s Golden Chain does not end there, however. Its original form had been modified several times. Presently, there is a movement in some parts of North America to modify it even further so that it conforms to perceived Jodo shin shu doctrine. Here is the proposed version:
I am a link in Amida Buddha’s Golden Chain of Love that stretches around the world. I must keep my link bright and strong. I will be kind and gentle to everything, and protect all who are weaker than myself. I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts, and to say pure and beautiful words, and to do pure and beautiful deeds, knowing that on what I do now depends not only my happiness or unhappiness, but also of others. May every link in Amida Buddha’s Golden Chain of Love become bright and strong and attain Perfect Peace.
The version in our English Seiten is also slightly modified from the original:
I am a link in Amida Buddha’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world. In gratitude may I keep my link bright and strong. I will try to be kind and gentle with every living thing, and protect all who are weaker than myself. I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts, to say pure and beautiful words, and do pure and beautiful deeds. May every link in Amida Buddha’s golden chain be bright and strong, and may we all attain perfect peace.
What do you think? Maybe we should all sit down and thoughtfully compose our own version of the Golden Chain?
We can never understand the teachings of Other Power if we can’t embrace the other. Embracing the other is our first humble step towards understanding the importance of Other Power. This is an ever-present tension in the theories of Jodo Shin Shu theology. We are, indeed, in serious danger when we see our good actions as worthless and our evil actions as effective enough to damn us. This gives too much power to the negative in our lives. There develops a kind of subtle pride in being evil, if we are not careful.
I have read Shinran to say that our good actions, our neutral actions, and our bad actions are all ineffective compared to the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha. This means here on ground zero of everyday life that the nembutsu gives us courage to see that there are some things so worthwhile it is important to do them, even if we do them imperfectly! Shinran’s teachings frees us from self-loathing, and from a fixed preoccupation with the darker side of human character. Thus the Golden Chain leads us to the importance of Other Power in humility and gratitude.
The work of the Rev. Hunts is largely forgotten. Their names are largely forgotten. It is a wonder that the Golden Chain has not been forgotten, too. That we still have it today is a source of wonder and gratitude owed to laypeople who have loved it over our ten decades in Canada. Let’s not allow it to slip away easily.
March 17, 2009
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